Helen Kwalwasser, 89, of Center City, a violin professor at Temple University for nearly 50 years and a much-admired chamber musician and soloist in Philadelphia and New York City, died Monday, May 22, at her home.
She was “a beautiful person, an extraordinary musician, and an iconic figure in the music world,” said violinist Sarah Chang, who would sometimes go to Ms. Kwalwasser’s apartment to try out new repertoire before playing it in public. “She had the biggest heart, was endlessly generous with her love and time for her students, and I will forever be grateful to have worked with her.”
Ms. Kwalwasser was one-half of a musical team that cut a big figure at Temple. Her husband, Harvey Wedeen, head of the piano department, came to the school in the mid-1960s, and she joined him — first as an adjunct and then, beginning in 1970, as violin professor, chair of the string department, and chamber music teacher. She retired in 2015.
Born in Syracuse, N.Y., Ms. Kwalwasser was the daughter of pioneering musical psychologist Jacob Kwalwasser, and was playing violin by age 4. She studied with revered figures. At 11, she entered the Curtis Institute of Music as a student of Efrem Zimbalist, and after a year moved to the Juilliard School, where her mentor became Ivan Galamian.
“I was one of Galamian’s first pupils in this country,” she told the Inquirer in 1986. She not only studied with him; she moved in with him, along with a few other students. “He was a father to me besides being my teacher, saw to my schooling, eating, helped me pick out clothes. He was really rather wonderful.”
Ms. Kwalwasser gave her Town Hall debut in 1947, at age 19, and the New York Times was full of praise. “Her playing was marked by clean, pleasant, flowing tone, good intonation and a variety of shading. It was not fiery, but there was emotional expressiveness in everything she did,” wrote a critic.
In fact, colleagues said, that was very much her musical philosophy. “She hated flash for flash’s sake,” said violinist Charles Parker Jr., who worked closely with Ms. Kwalwasser in Philadelphia stewarding the Davidsbund Chamber Players. “She rarely would even teach Paganini, unless a student needed a caprice for an audition. She also very much disliked performers who could play something faster and cleaner. She would say, ‘Why? What’s the big deal?’”
Yet emotion was an important element. “She realized at an early age that she knew how to make people cry,” said Parker. “When she played a second movement, people would be wiping tears away at the end. She was so connected to what she was doing, and that to me is such a rare talent.”
Ms. Kwalwasser was a visible presence in Philadelphia and New York for decades, performing with the New York Chamber Soloists, and touring the United States with the Temple Trio. She was concertmistress with the Pennsylvania Ballet orchestra, and played with the Bethlehem Bach Festival and the Casals Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico.
And she educated several generations of students. “There was no such thing as a one-hour lesson with her — they went as long as they had to go,” said Jeffrey Cornelius, retired dean of Temple’s Boyer College of Music.
She was married to Wedeen for 57 years, until his death in 2015. Both were recognized with Temple’s Great Teacher Award: he in 1996, she in 2008.
Ms. Kwalwasser taught at Temple’s prep division, where a very young Chang was a student, and although she was not Chang’s teacher there, Chang would sometimes play for her. The star violinist remembers the last time she saw Ms. Kwalwasser — at the airport in Los Angeles, where the elder violinist didn’t pass up the chance to give a quick lesson: “She yelled out, ‘Sarah, is that you? Where are you going?’ And then as we hugged, she scolded me gently, saying, ‘If you lug your violin on a single shoulder strap like that all the time, you’ll bust your shoulder. Go get two straps and hold it like a backpack.'”
Ms. Kwalwasser is survived by daughters Lisa and Laura Wedeen, and three grandchildren.
A memorial event is tentatively scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22, at Rock Hall on the Temple campus.
Donations may be made to Temple University, with the memo line reading “Helen Kwalwasser & Harvey Wedeen Scholarship Fund,” and mailed to Jennifer E. Jordan, Development and Alumni Relations, Temple University Boyer College, 1715 N. Broad St., Suite 102D, Philadelphia 19122.